It has been close to a year since we’ve been able to say this, but it is officially game week for the Arizona baseball team as Ball State comes to Tucson for a weekend series at Hi Corbett Field, and sophomore infielder Jacob Blas could not be happier to be on the brink of seeing another team in the opposing dugout.
“I feel like you try to make it as game-like as possible in the intersquads but to face like another team is very rewarding,” Blas said. “Our team puts in so much and so many hours throughout, and for the whole year, we’ve been practicing kind of for this season. And just to finally have another team over there and all being on one side is really exciting.”
“We’ve kind of always been going against each other," Blas said. "I can’t wait to see how good our team is with both sides on one team going against someone else.”
There is a lot of excitement around the clubhouse this week, and the talk around town continues to surround the revamped pitching staff for Arizona with the returning players paired with a few new faces joining the team.
“It is by far the best staff we’ve had in my four years here,” Blas said. “Just as far as velocity, I feel like the velocity speaks for itself. And as far as the way they pitch and the way they attack hitters, so many strikes, being on defense behind them is so much more fun. There are not as many walks, and I just feel like they’re all really confident.”
Head coach Jay Johnson announced that Chase Silseth will be taking the mound for the Wildcats for Friday night’s season opener. The sophomore transfer out of the College of Southern Nevada made five starts last season to the tune of a 2.10 ERA.
“I’d say someone to keep your eyes on right now would be obviously [Silseth],” senior pitcher Preston Price said. “He is legit, I mean every guy on this pitching staff is very good. They bring a lot of good stuff to the program, so I would say just keep your eye on as many people as possible.”
Johnson also mentioned that Chandler Murphy, who pitched a team-best 2.70 ERA in last year’s shortened season, will take the mound on Saturday followed by junior left-handed pitcher Garrett Irvin on Sunday.
After last season was halted so abruptly, one of the ways Price looks back at last year was that this Wildcats team had “unfinished business” to take care of — one of the main reasons why the senior decided to return to Tucson to play another season under head coach Johnson and pitching coach Nate Yeskie.
“I just felt that we had unfinished business, and I know that this team was very special,” Price said. “I knew a couple of people that were coming in as well so just seeing all of that talent combined and everything, it was just something that you couldn’t get away from. It was just inspiring to be apart of, and it still is, and I just can’t wait for Friday.”
Price was in constant contact with Johnson over the last year or so as he had other opportunities to potentially play professional baseball elsewhere, but by staying with the Wildcats one more season instead, he will get a chance to finish his degree, one of the primary topics Johnson had discussed with Price.
“[Price] is one of those guys who had the opportunity to sign one of those $20,000 free agent deals with the major league teams or professional baseball teams,” Johnson said. “It didn’t make a lot of sense to me. He’s worked really hard. He is really close to his degree, I think he’s only in six units right now to be able to finish and is a very key part of our bullpen. I wanted to see him finish school, obviously wanted to have him back, get him an opportunity with professional baseball after this year.”
As Price looks towards playing another year of baseball in Tucson with the Wildcats, he looked back and reflected on the last year or so where he and a number of other teammates got jobs during the time off to help out their families. This experience made him even more thankful and appreciative for the game of baseball.
“People like the saying where it says, ‘You don’t realize what you have until it’s gone.' Just seeing that when it got taken away, it was heartbreaking,” Price said. “I didn’t know if I was going to be able to play again or if my career was done, but as soon as I started talking to [coach Johnson] and everything like that, it was like I know how serious this is and anything can get taken away from you as fast as that.”
Price and the rest of his teammates are ready to move on from the last year of time off and embark on a new season beginning this weekend against the Cardinals. The Wildcats not only have to worry about COVID-19 testing, which is all clear on both sides at the moment but also the winter snowstorm that has been affecting so much of the country in recent weeks. Ball State is set to fly out of Indianapolis, and coach Johnson has been keeping a close eye on the weather in that area with numerous other series already having been canceled this weekend.
“If I showed you my phone and the weather app, I do have Indianapolis on there right now which is where they’re supposed to fly out of,” Johnson said. “There’s been a lot of cancellations already. I think Omaha just canceled at Oregon, Fresno State at UC Irvine, so we’re ready to pivot quickly.”
Johnson did note that Ball State head coach Rich Maloney reached out to him, and their first round of COVID-19 testing was all clear, so all that is left is ensuring that their team flight out to Tucson is not one of the many flights canceled among this polar vortex we’re in the midst of.
Johnson has made it clear more than once that if a series is canceled this year for Arizona because another team can’t play, he is going to do whatever it takes to find another team to play. He even noted that he’s already had multiple other teams contact him about playing the Wildcats this weekend if Ball State can’t make it to Tucson.
"I’ve actually had two calls this morning on if we’re still on for this weekend of teams wanting to play,” Johnson said. “I think the first thing is our baseball program is well supported from an administration standpoint.”
We are right around the corner from another year of hope and uncertainty, but the coaches and players only have so much control when it comes to COVID-19 positive tests and weather issues. One thing for certain is that this Arizona baseball team is ready to roll through the potential bumps and do whatever it takes to reach the NCAA tournament for the first time since 2017. The season kicks off Friday, Feb. 19 at 6 p.m. MST. The Pac-12 currently isn’t allowing fans, but the hope is that will change at some point this season.
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